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Fifth Year Overall Winner: Róisín Howard of Laurel Hill Coláiste FCJ, Limerick

Let’s do this together

Your manager asks if she can speak to you in her office. You take a seat and you talk for what seems like hours. She thanks you for the hard work you have done for her over the past decade, but regrets to inform you that your time working for her must come to an end. You go home and sit at the kitchen table, staring into space. Hours suddenly turn into days and then weeks. Suddenly, you can't afford to pay your rent, and you must sell your car to put food on the table. Gradually, your savings seem to disappear, and just like that, in the blink of an eye, you lose everything. You are forced onto the streets, and you have nobody to turn to for help. Homelessness is almost like a deadly cancer, a silent, merciless murderer that can appear out of nowhere, spiral out of control and leave a path of utter destruction behind.

St. Vincent de Paul drop-in centre, Heartstone Street, Limerick. This is where I spent three hours every Tuesday for six months of my teenage life. Preparing sandwiches, filling cups of tea, talking about the weather, but most importantly, making friends.

With every week that passed by, I began to learn more and more about what it is really like to be homeless in Ireland. Men and women of all ages would arrive through those doors, carrying the weight of the world on their weak, tired and vulnerable shoulders. Slowly, they began to trust me, and I began to learn more and more about them. The invisible barrier between us started to disappear, and I realised that I had more in common with these people than I first thought. Sometimes, it was a drug addict or an alcoholic; sometimes, it was someone with a mental illness. Some days, it was a mother unable to provide for her children, and some days, it was an old man whose wife had died, leaving him completely alone. Some days, it was a person who just last year was financially stable, but then, suddenly, lost their job, their car, their home and their hope. Every day, however, every single person I met, during the time I spent there, was a human being, a human being with rights, but more importantly, a human being with feelings.

My time volunteering was a truly eye opening experience. I often find myself thinking about the people I met there. Where are they now? Are they hungry? Who is looking out for them? Are they alive? Our current economic climate means more people are at risk of homelessness now than ever before. There have been further cut backs in health, education, welfare services and training. What frightens me the most is the fact that the number of homeless people in Ireland is going to continue to grow, but we can stop the spread of this crisis.

 With the 100 year anniversary of 1916 Rising fast approaching, it is necessary for us to reflect on how Ireland has changed over the last century. Yes, we have our freedom and we can call ourselves a republic, but what have we really achieved? There are still over 400 families homeless. There are children who are hungry. There are thousands of men and women who can't sleep at night because they are frightened they will lose their home. There are families living in hotel rooms. This is the reality of the so called 'progress' our country has made over the past one hundred years. Ireland is advertised as a land of craic, culture and freedom. But how can we possibly promote our small country as a place of peace and tranquillity when there are thousands of people homeless, with figures rising with every passing day? With our yes vote to gay marriage in 2015, we were commended worldwide for our ability to accept others, regardless of their sexuality. We declared ourselves a nation of equals. But have we really said 'yes' to equality? What about the 400 homeless families and their daily struggle to survive?

I am confident that we can put an end to homelessness. We must remember that we are human beings. We managed to put footprints on the moon. We created the Internet. We have performed lung, liver, kidney and heart transplants. We weathered storms like Katrina and survived earthquakes, floods, landslides and volcanic eruptions. What do all of these events have in common? None of them were accomplished or achieved alone. Yes, Tim Berners Lee may be the inventor of the World Wide Web, but what about the man or woman who taught him how to read and write? What about the person who designed the surgeons’ tools or the people who built the rocket that brought Neil Armstrong to the moon? You may wonder what any of this has to do with the homelessness crisis, but I am trying to demonstrate that, as individuals, we are limited in what we can achieve, but together, we can do some really amazing things. The only way we can abolish Ireland's homelessness crisis is by working together. You, me, your friends, your enemies, your family, the government, charities like Simon, Focus Ireland and St.Vincent de Paul, we must all come together and fight until each and every man, woman and child has a place where they feel safe, where they feel loved.

Sister Stanislaus Kennedy blames the government for the homelessness crisis in Ireland. But what we must remember is that no group of individuals is fully responsible for driving people into homelessness. It is essential that no more time is put to waste arguing about who is to blame for this problem. Charities, government representatives, teachers, students, we must all come together and try to combat the homelessness crisis in Ireland together. Mattie J.T. Stepanek once said that 'unity is strength, and when there is teamwork and collaboration, wonderful things can be achieved.' This is the exact mind-set we must have if we want to reduce the number of people without a home in Ireland. Students can raise awareness, the government can review their policies, communities can unite and form a powerful force and charities can continue the inspirational work they are doing.

Each and every Irish citizen, young, old and even those somewhere in between, can make a difference. Let’s do this together.